In my Basic Judaism class and my class for perspective converts, one of my first lessons begins with an introduction to Jewish history. I let the students know that a person cannot truly understand Judaism without learning the history of the Jewish people. As the Jewish people are more than 3,000 years old, our beliefs and customs, our laws and practices have changed as the civilizations which ruled over us, or within which we lived, have influenced us and vice a versa.
There is, however, an additional reason for the importance of learning our history. We need to learn from it, to not relive it. As the philosopher George Santayana has so aptly reminded not only the Jewish people but all peoples, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
We, as Jews, should be able to look back on our history and review it and evaluate it for our future. After all, we are always doing self-reflection and evaluation of our actions to recognize and call-out our sins, and to correct them. This occurs every week on the second and fifth days of the week during morning rituals of tachanun, each night during a custom of Heshbon HaNefesh when we take an account of our actions during the day, and of course, on Yom Kippur. We should, therefore, be able to accomplish this task not only as individuals, but as a people of Israel.
Why is this important and why is this task important at this time?
This week Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av, will begin Wednesday evening. As most of this posting’s readers know, this is a day that marks numerous catastrophes that have happened on this very day during our history. To name but a few: The First Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 B.C.E.; the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E.; the Jews were expelled from England on July 18, 1290/Av 9, 5050; SS commander Heinrich Himmler formally received approval from the Nazi Party for “The Final Solution” on August 2,1941/Av 9, 5701; and the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto, in route to Treblinka, began on July 23, 1942/Av 9, 5702.
Aside from raising the question of whether the selection of this day for all these events was only coincidence or by the hand of God, it could be asked whether beyond simply interesting and sad history, what if any meaning does this day have for our future! What is the point of Tish B’Av? Why fast, why mourn over the destruction of the two Temples, and why recite the biblical book of Lamentations? I have taught that it is not only a day to recall the past, but also it is a day to reflect and use to reorient ourselves for the future, as a people and as individuals. How is this accomplished? It is accomplished by studying these events and learning from them, so that they will not be repeated.
The rabbis, in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple, reflected on its destruction by the Romans and of the First Temple by the Babylonians, and came up with two reasons for God’s allowance of our enemies to do this to us and to God as well. They believed that the First Temple was destroyed as punishment for the Jewish people’s turning away from God and worshipping other gods, as represented in idols. As for the Second Temple, it was destroyed because of senseless infighting among the members and groups of the Jewish people.
Leaving aside the theology in these assessments, it can be asked as to whether they have any relevance for us today, and I believe they do.
I am not sure about turning to idolatry, but I certainly know that more and more Jews are either leaving synagogues or simply not affiliating with them. They are failing to support these institutions which have been the foundation of Jewish life for over 2,000 years. We are witnessing the decline of synagogues, forcing many to close their doors or to merge with neighboring synagogues that are also suffering from declining membership. I do believe that this trend, coupled with a declining belief in God, will lead to the eventual diminution of the Jewish people and our very existence itself beyond a select remnant of a few zealots.
Similarly, what happened in the period before the destruction of the Second Temple, we are now witnessing more infighting among Jews both in the diaspora as well as in the State of Israel. The name calling, the questioning of Jewish status, the lack of respect for others of the People of Israel is growing dangerously high. Such infighting, just as it can destroy a family, it can destroy our people as well.
Whether you are observing Tisha B’Av this year or not, I ask you to consider these teachings, these lessons, from our past. Are you one of those who has turned away from living a Jewish life? If you no longer go to synagogue, study Jewish texts, live any semblance of a Jewish life, then can you begin to correct this? You can find a synagogue and find a Rabbi! Make one your Jewish home and the other your teacher.
Open your mind, heart, and soul to God, letting the divine presence into your life. The traditional sources offer many paths to God. Why not try one of these paths and see how it will affect your life and bring you back to the community of Israel? Finally, in your heart know that all those of the Jewish community, whether Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Chabad, Hasidic, etc., are Jews and deserving of our respect and love.
Let us not repeat the past, but rather let us build for the future by understanding and learning from the past.
This is the meaning of Tisha B’Av.
Am Yisrael Chai! May the People of Israel Live Forever.
Rabbi Dr. Steven A Moss is Rabbi Emeritus of B’nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale, NY, a synagogue he has served since 1972. He recently retired to Boynton Beach, FL, and is serving as rabbi of Temple Sinai of Palm Beach County. He has also authored, God Is With Me; I Have No Fear, and A Poetical Journey Through Sefirat HaOmer.